Divorced Women And Social Security

By Tom Margenau

December 15, 2014 6 min read

Q: I was married to my husband for 35 years before he divorced me and married a much newer and better-equipped model (if you get my drift). They have even had a child together! I'm 62, and my ex is 65. If all his extra physical activity (if you get my drift again) causes the bum to drop dead, are the trophy wife and little love child going to get all his Social Security -- leaving me with nothing?

A: Don't worry. You'll get a full share of Mr. Wonderful's Social Security. Whenever two women are due benefits on the same man's Social Security account, they don't offset each other. Each gets whatever Social Security spousal benefits she is due.

And you may not even have to wait until he dies from exhaustion. You are possibly due divorced wife's (not widow's) benefits already. At your age, you would be due about one-third of his basic Social Security benefit -- but only to the extent that it exceeds whatever you might be due on your own Social Security account. In other words, if a third of his Social Security is more than your own retirement benefit, then you will get that benefit plus whatever extra you are due on his record to take you up to that one-third level.

But if you've worked any decent amount of time, then it is very likely that your own benefit exceeds one-third of his. Then you would have to wait until he keels over, and you could be due much higher divorced widow's benefits.

And in case you are wondering, here is what Ms. Trophy may be due.

While he's alive, she and little Junior can't get Social Security until he files for benefits himself. At that point, Junior will get an amount equal to half of Daddy's benefit rate. Ms. Trophy is potentially due benefits as a young wife caring for a child. But because of rules that limit how much a family can get, she probably won't qualify for anything. When he dies, then both Junior and Trophy could get survivor benefits. However, if Trophy is working, her earnings would prevent her from getting any Social Security.

Q: I was married from March 2001 until April 2009. Then we divorced. I then married the same man in November 2010 and divorced him a second time in January 2014. So we were married for more than 10 years, although it was in two separate stretches of time. Will I be able to get Social Security on his record?

A: You lucked out. The rule does say your marriage must have reached its 10th anniversary before you can be considered potentially eligible for divorced wife's benefits. But two periods of marriage to the same man that, combined, add up to at least 10 years will count if the second marriage occurs before the end of the year following the year in which you got the first divorce. In other words, because you got divorced in April 2009, you had until the end of 2010 to remarry the guy and stay within the Social Security duration of marriage rules. And you just squeaked in by marrying him in November. So now I've got a question for you: Why the heck did you marry the guy the second time? I know, love can be strange!

Q: I have been a stay-at-home mom all my life. I am 63, and my husband is 62. We have been married for 20 years. He doesn't plan to take his Social Security until he is 66. But I'd like to get my share of my husband's benefits now. I contacted Social Security and learned that I can't get any of his Social Security until he files for benefits. I'm sort of OK with that. But here is the catch. He was married before for more than 10 years to another woman. She never remarried. She is 63. And I just learned that she has filed for and is receiving my husband's Social Security. How in the world can that be fair?

A: This is one of those government rules that sound ill-thought-out and wacky until you learn the reasoning behind them. And that law does say a currently married woman can't get any of her husband's Social Security until he is getting benefits himself. But a divorced woman can get benefits from her ex, as long as he is old enough for Social Security, even if he is not yet a beneficiary himself.

The reasoning behind the law has to do with the issue of dependency. A woman qualifies for a portion of her husband's Social Security benefits because she is considered to be financially dependent on him. In other words, the law assumes that a woman who doesn't have her own job and her own Social Security was being supported by her husband while he was working and therefore should be supported by a portion of his Social Security once he retires.

So as long as your husband is still working and not getting Social Security, the law just assumes that he is supporting you with his wages or other income. Or to put that another way, if he doesn't need his Social Security, then you don't need his Social Security, either.

But the law can't make those assumptions for a divorced woman. Your husband is very likely not supporting this woman, whom he divorced more than 20 years ago. So under the dependency guidelines, the rules say she has a right to claim some of his Social Security. And as I pointed out in a prior answer, anything paid to this ex-wife will not reduce what you are due when your husband finally does retire.

Tom Margenau's weekly column, "Social Security and You," can be found at creators.com.

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